It Takes The New York Times To Tell Me about My Neighbors

Categories: Schutze

Apparently if you really want to get one of your neighbors to open up about herself, you need to send somebody over to interview her for The New York Times. I learned more about my neighbor Virginia Savage Talkington (lotta names) McAlester from the pages of the Times yesterday than I ever knew from living around the corner for 30 years. Then again, it's a long corner.

Virginia-McAlester-Headshot.jpg
virginiamcalester.com
Virginia McAlester

I should have known -- of course my wife did know -- that McAlester is either the reigning national authority or one of the reigning authorities on American residential architecture through her book, A Field Guide to American Houses written both as a history of house architecture and a manual for anybody trying to figure out what they've gotten themselves into. The very long Times piece was about the new edition of the book just now coming out but also about her long, difficult and apparently victorious struggle over the last year with a near-fatal disease.

McAlester's parents, no longer living, were Dallas Mayor Wallace Savage (1949 to 1951), and Dorothy Savage, one of the original champions and enforcers of historic preservation in Dallas. While mayor, Wallace Savage gave Dallas its first dose of racial justice by integrating the city ambulance service.

Many years ago I was out walking my dog after writing something for The Dallas Times Herald in which I had said that the Dallas Citizens Council, the private group that dominates city politics to this day, bore no official ties to the white citizens councils that grew up in Southern cities in the 1950s in opposition to integration.

He and Dorothy were out walking, too. They button-holed me. He said he didn't know anything about the Dallas Citizens Council being connected to the white citizens councils, but he said while he was mayor the Dallas Citizens Council hired a new young executive director from the national staff of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta. That guy informed then Mayor Savage, who had just integrated the ambulances, that he would never again receive support from the Dallas Citizens Council and might as well step down after one term, which he did.

"I don't know if they were connected with the white citizens councils," he told me, "but they were connected with the Klan. That ought to be good enough."

I know that nowadays historic preservation is viewed as sort of hoity-toity -- an opinion I sometimes share -- but back in the 1970s when Dorothy Savage set out to save Swiss Avenue, it was bare-knuckled slum politics. She was trying to save a whole neighborhood of old wrecks teetering on the brink of ruin. Her challenge was to stop Dallas from doing to Swiss Avenue and surrounding streets what it already had done to many other old neighborhoods, using zoning laws to turn them into barren wastelands of tenements and used car lots.

Ask anybody who ever went up against her. She was tough. I wrote a critical article about her once -- something about a traffic plan she was pushing for a nearby shopping district. Out walking the dog again, saw her and Wallace coming, thought maybe the better part of valor might be to duck down an alleyway, but they waved me over as usual. She was laughing. "Can't be in politics if you let your feelings get hurt," she said. Of course, there was also the fact that by then she had won.

Our street, as I said before, is around the corner from the grand mansions of Swiss. We would have been left out of the whole preservation thing had it not been for Dorothy. In designing the ordinance that saved Swiss, she made sure the district took in more modest adjacent areas. She also made sure that preservation would be a viable alternative all over the city.

We got our own taste of Savage family ferocity in 2005 when plans were announced for the demolition of a longtime incurable eyesore of a house on our block to make way for what was supposed to be a tasteful new replacement. Virginia manned the battlements to stop bulldozers from taking the house. It split the block in half. We literally had neighbors going after each other with baseball bats at one point (just waving them).

I had mixed feelings. I was pro-preservation all the way, but I secretly admired the neighbors who wanted to see that horrible old eyesore bulldozed, because at least they were forcing action one way or the other.

It went the Virginia way. Funds were raised, and the house was saved and beautifully restored at what had to be a totally uneconomic cost. We sometimes say our neighborhood was saved in part by our shared lack of business acumen. But the other part was the Savage-Talkington-McAlester clan, all of whom, including her kids, have inherited the grandparents' cheerful lust for battle.

The battle woven through the background in the Times piece yesterday was Virginia's year-long struggle with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder that manifests as leukemia. She has always been very private about personal matters, so I was surprised to see the Times guy prying a few reluctant disclosures out of her about the disease. My wife told me I could have kept up better if I read emails from anybody but Bass Pro Shops. Whatever.

The news at the end of the story was that, like her mother, Virginia is feeling chipper and ahead of the game, and, like her mother, she has won, not that the two things are necessarily connected. These are the people who make the city.


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17 comments
triptows
triptows

I will certainly be buying this revised book. My husband and I are moving into your 'hood - purchasing a home next to the one that was saved from tear-down a few years back. I have been googling the history of the district and keep coming up with your articles. I am thrilled that people like her fought the good fight and helped to bring neighborhood preservation to Dallas. I am looking forward to living in a well-loved and well-preserved corner of the city, even if it is (probably) the tiniest of the district's homes. Cozy is my buzzword and I'm owning it.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

If anyone wants to see how barren Swiss could have been I highly recommend a drive to Park Row west of Fair Park. Of the few remaining once gorgeous mansions most are in extreme disrepair.

It was once the super rich Jewish neighborhood in town until the synagogue moved. Then it was a wealthy black neighborhood. Now it's a few remaining mansions and a bunch of empty lots.

If you get really curious, go down to Cedar Crest golf course near Cadillac Heights. Used to be an upper middle class Jewish neighborhood and now it's looks like South Oak Cliff.

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

I too have been saddened over the years as Dallas continually kow-tows to Dallas Developmental Disease, one of those 3-D kind of "things" that barks on the radio and television that gentrification of neighborhoods is "an exciting development" even as they're plowing through, say, the once venerable State-Thomas neighborhood, a freedman's town that, for several decades at least, was close enough to downtown that employees could walk to work without even getting hit by a car.  Then came the Woodall Rodgers cement hatchet that cut through that longstanding connection with poor families that had lived in State-Thomas for close to a century. 

I remember a couple of friends and I took the Bug out to the construction site in 1979 or 1980 simply to throw dirt-clods at the rising pillars of concrete rising.  Summer was beginning, and although we were white boys (not on drugs), we did get a few hoots from the old couples sitting on their porches and "enjoying" the "confiscation" of their view.  Sure they did get paid well, but something important about Dallas was lost to stone-cold cement with a capital "C". 

Another acquaintance of mine at the time told us that her father had revealed to her that the old State-Thomas neighborhood was going to be "posh".  She was quite happy about that.  I kept seeing some kind of sheik, a pasha, passing through the cerebral screen as I listened to the little chipmunk's prattling on about luxury, wealth, being on the inside, blah, blah, blah. 

Indeed, the great Woodall Rodgers cut-through is a convenience--for occupants inside the Giant Automobile cultural animus factory.  But have you ever tried riding your bicycle through rush-hour traffic on McKinney?  Oh yeah.  I remember that well.  That's where I learned that the best defense against 3,000 pounds of steel is a blasted good offense.  I didn't care if the "honk if you love Jesus" people were angry as I took the entire lane to protect myself.  I had work ahead of me, and the bicycle saved me enough money to survive in 1982-83.  You know what?  Ducks honk, but not as loud as cars. 

A couple of years later, when the Developmental Disorder Disease managed to lasso the oldest wooden structure in the Southwest, a huge Victorian behemoth directly across the street from the Federal Building at Commerce and Field, I joined a couple of urban archaeologists to gather some boards and a little plaster here and there.  Later, we found the cinders and ashes under the ground, confirmation what a friend from New York University sent me from the public library on the East Coast: In 1870, when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation had already hit town, the antebellum mansions from Pearl and Ross all the way to the Trinity River was a literal line dance of great housing for white people who, conveniently, ignored the proclamation and moved on. 

Righteously angry about being left in the dark about freedom, the former slaves of Dallas, Texas, burned Dallas to the ground.  It must have been just ducky to see Scarlet O'Hara, Dallas version, running for her life, hoop dress and all, to escape the deluge of fire while ruining her clothing.  A few years later, in order to escape "the black", the refugees moved northwards to create Highland Park, north of "the black", and therefore higher. 

More lost heritage?  Perhaps.  A renaissance?  Not quite.  Now Dallas is the proud "uncle" of dozens of empty mirrored skyscrapers, and sometimes I cannot help but wonder how the word, "skyscraper" really came into being.  I don't see any scratch-marks in the air.

Do you? 


timdickey
timdickey

One more great piece of Virginia McAlester trivia: Her son Keven directed the fantastic documentary, "You're Gonna Miss Me" about the life and tribulations of Thirteenth Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

jim, you left off the last word in the ending sentence...

"These are the people who make the City better"

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

The greatest appreciations in property value are in places like Santa Fe and San Francisco where development is most restricted. A free pass to develop whatever you want is not a way to build a great city.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

We already heard on the street you were coming. This time Friday the whole block will know all of your family gossip back three generations. We are an East Texas all-cousin town. Welcome.

kduble
kduble

@gordonhilgers Some sourcing might assuage my skepticism of Dallas blacks still being in the dark about emancipation 7 years after the fact and five years after Dallas had presumably been occupied by Union troops.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

That was a really good story. Thank you. Now I must research this fire.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@timdickey  

Other son, Carty Talkington, was director/writer of film, “Love and a .45,” in which Renee Zellweger had her first appearance, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110395/?ref_=nm_knf_t1. Daughter, Amy Talkington, was writer/director of 2006 film, “Night of the White Pants,” comedy-drama set in East Dallas http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468521/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1, with Nick Stahl, Tom Wilkinson, Selma Blair.

I have a feeling I am leaving out a notable sibling somewhere.

Virginia McAlester is also the neighbor, one block removed, of Dallas Observer writer Jim Schutze, whose son’s car was in a movie directed by McAlester’s daughter.

rusknative
rusknative

@JimSXthey can move to Houston if they want to enjoy NO ZONING restrictions....build a filling station next to your million buck domain.

triptows
triptows

Are we talking Mayberry, or are we talking Deliverance?  I hope all the cousins have all their teeth. 

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

@kduble@gordonhilgersI've tried looking it up.  I have lost the documentation when Public Storage decided to sell every single thing I owned because I "missed a payment". 

Can you hear the radio silence now?  Can you see the media's blind eye now? 

Dallas didn't have a media monstrosity machine back in 1870.  The best way to keep people from knowing what was happening was easy:  Keep them out of the room.  I have lived in Dallas long enough to know all the dog-whistles like "heritage" and "renaissance" and "keep out" and "don't mess with Texas" and "Liberalism is Marxism" to know one thing: Not only is this a rip-off, it's a complete sell-out.  America has been put on the soapbox and sold to the highest bidder like a slave here in the 1850s. 

Belo: silence!  New Times: silence!  CBSDFW: silence!  WFAA: silence! 

That is the message I have been given with "no talkin' back now, you hair?" for 33 years.  I have a journalism degree that, when I had the chance to use it, I so beat-down Dallas' media monstrosity war machine that those goobs didn't know what hit them until the changes came for Dallas's homeless community.  I could write circles around "Dallas Press Clubs" in journalism with both hands behind my back.  The "professionalistas" of Dallas cow patty journalism do not like me.  Speaking truth to power in a public way is NOT ALLOWED in Dallas.  I have learned well from the Dallas Citizens Council.  So what if they allow Blacks into their little Clubbiness?  Dallas is becoming "an equal opportunity enslaver".  So sorry you cannot hear the whiplashings. 

Our family: Harrassed by the Klan because we are "relatives" of the Circuit Court Justice who happened to decide in favor of Rosa Parks in 1956.  Those horse's asses have not been kind to my family.  Highland Park is a giant black hole in the middle of the city.  Hear the giant sucking sound? 

Maybe you don't.  It's hard to hear something called "white noise" when you've been spoon-fed it your entire life. 

Jim Schutze: Gym Shoes.  Yeah, it's all about "sports and archetecture" isn't it?  No wonder people like me really do wish and pray that The New York Times would offer Dallas a New York Times Metropolitan page. 

The News?  Keep it down where the goats can git it.  Git.  That's a British slang word for "a foolish, contemptable person". 

Git, Dallas.  Quit being such a damned git.  Like, now. 

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

@P1GunterThanks.  Another good one surrounds Founder's Square on Jackson, directly to the south of the McDonald's downtown version we used to call Crack Donalds because of all the salesmen standing around, only to scamper away when the car alarm in a car on the curb went off because someone in South Dallas had a police scanner. 

The old Beale Building was a cotton warehouse during and after the Civil War.  At that time, the Trinity was a busy port--believe it or not!--and Dallas was the center of sewing activities as people garnered huge bales of cotton from the river and transported them underground from the Trinity to the warehouse.  The fashion part of Dallas began...in the manufacture of Confederate Army uniforms.  Top secret stuff.  The Trinity was swollen like a lake because of a logjam, and barges could run right from the Mississippi to the Trinity with a jag on the Arkansas River. 

When Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac partnered with friends to build the Starck club in the Swan Building area or the Foggy Bottoms, they dug a hole and BAM!  They discovered the underground railroad, complete with a small track that led from the Trinity River, beneath the now infamous Triple Underpass and on to the Beale Building.  The Beale terminus of the railroad is sealed in the basement's now beautifully articulated "atrium" and housed a law firm where I worked, as well as the offices of Phil Gramm, the dude who pushed through the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, now known as the major source of the problem we now know as the Great Recession that began in the waning days of 2007.  Phil Gramm later worked as the "accounting consultant" for Enron, and a connection between Enron and the now (quasi) defunct Arthur Andersen, the once nationally-known accountancy center based right in the upper floors of the "green neon" building, tallest structure in the city.  When I worked there in the mid-1990s, I was an executive courier, and yes, I have plenty of funny stories to tell about that little trainwreck of a temp job.  I did get called back in the late 1990s to work in the nastiest, filthiest, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug accounting consultancy training center's file room, literally a pig sty, and that's where I found Dick and Lynne Cheney's probably priceless accounting documents.  Nope.  Didn't look.  But wanted to look. 

There are indeed old maps of that little underground railway, but they are awfully difficult to ferret out of, well, let's just call it "the invisible hand of the marketplace" a la Adam Smith, known for "The Wealth of Nations" but also known for "Theory of Moral Sentiment", a book that would smash the idea that Smith was "all about" the free market.  In "Theory of Moral Sentiment", Smith describes how the economy affects the polity and is really pretty plain about the need for altruism, sympathy for others and "mutual shared self interest" a concept apparently way beyond the thought processes of what could be called "the Age of Antisocial Freedom".  You know: the "freedom" to act irresponsibly, the "freedom" to prey and profiteer off the innocent, and the "freedom" to think only of one's self, bad or otherwise. 

I'll never forget the night Grace Jones, black as coal and sweating hard, did a total take-down in the basement of the Starck Club.  She wasn't afraid to be black.  I don't know why anyone would be afraid to be black.  But remember: This is Dallas, and the soft machine continues to roll on, backwards though it be, and there's nothing like a Turtle Creek to show us all that, nope, the South is not going to rise again, and nope, even with the patience of all the tea in China are we going to get a repeat performance of the ugly and bloody Civil War. 

Let your freak flags fly, Sanger Harris hippies.  I'll never forget the arrest of a beautiful hippie girl who had the "audacity" to ride stone naked on the back of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park. 

My sister and I laughed about that one for years. 

rusknative
rusknative

@gordonhilgerswell....any similarity to your rant and a journalistic writing is truly lost on me....heck, what do I know, I am merely educated.

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